I have been teaching mathematics in an Australian High School since 1982, and I am a contributing author to mathematics text books.
Several times per year, school staff are obliged to meet with parents to inform them on the progress of their children. To the uninitiated, this would appear to be a case of the immovable object (the teacher) meeting the irresistible force (the parent). Neither side wants to be David in a David versus Goliath battle, even though David proves to be the eventual victor.
Both protagonists ritually perform “the blame game”, a verbal song and dance comprising parent diatribe with respectful but near vitriolic teacher responses.
Throughout these proceedings, the “meat in the sandwich” is the martyr child who, afraid of sanctions, treads a fine line between echoing the views of the parents and a display of teacher subservience.
A typical conversation involving parents, the child and the mathematics teacher might run along the following lines. Two scenarios are presented, admittedly more tongue-in-cheek than offering a true picture of the dynamics that might take place during such solemn occasions.
When the Parent Is Wrong
Teacher: “Good afternoon. How are you both going?”
Mother, flustered: “We demand to know why you are failing Johnny.”
Father, accusingly: “He tells us he does all the work he has to, and he’s passing tests.”
Teacher, looking directly at Johnny: “Is that true, Johnny?”
Johnny, looking down uneasily: “Well, I tell them that I try hard, and that I got a good mark for the fractions test.”
Teacher shows a printout of Johnny’s grades: “According to my records, Johnny has passed only one test out of five. He completed less than half of the prescribed homework and his project on Pythagoras’ theorem was plagiarised, copied straight from an internet site.”
Mother, on the defensive: “Well, he told us about the project. It took him a long time to copy and paste the information. You told him to write it in his own words. What’s the point of that if all it means is that he copies it out by hand. Just a waste of time.”
Teacher, ignoring the illogical analysis and turning to Johnny: “Johnny, as I remember it, one of the lines you included in your project was that ‘the theorem of Pythagoras can be applied to shapes other than triangles.’ Can you please give an example of that?”
Johnny, nervously: “Eh, I forgot.”
Teacher: “Can you at least describe what Pythagoras’ theorem is?”
Johnny, cornered: “I think it’s something about triangles and a + b with a square root somewhere.”
Father, covering up Johnny’s lack of knowledge: “But my son says that when he asks you for help, you ignore him.”
Teacher, aggrieved: “If I’ve ignored him, it was unintentional. Johnny, what was I doing when you asked me to assist you?”
Johnny confesses: “You were with another student.”
Teacher: “Did I say anything to you?”
Johnny, sheepishly: “You said you would come to assist me as soon as you finish with that student.”
Teacher: “Did I?”
Johnny: “Yes, sir.”
Mother, totally crushed: “We’ll speak with Johnny at home and get back to you.”
Teacher: “Fine. Please keep in touch.”
Exit two embarrassed parents and one soon-to-be punished son.
When the Teacher Is Wrong
Teacher: “Hi. I’m glad you’re here.”
Mother, smiling: “Hello. We’re here to find out how Johnny is going in mathematics.”
Teacher, shaking his head: “So far, he’s been a big disappointment to me, and I am sure, to you also.”
Father, concerned: “What do you mean?”
Teacher: “He tries his best, but sometimes that’s just not good enough. Mathematics is a difficult subject at the best of times, but for some reason Johnny can’t grasp anything I try to teach him. And I’m just about the best teacher around here.”
Mother, worried: “But what can we do? He tries to do all his homework, and we help him as much as we can.”
Teacher: “I suggest a remedial program. It will give him a chance to catch up on the huge amount of knowledge and skills that he sadly lacks. And he will be with other disinterested and incompetent students that also find the subject too challenging.”
Johnny, protesting: “But sir, that means I won’t be allowed to do mainstream mathematics next year. And I need it to be a carpenter.”
Teacher, shrugging shoulders: “We can’t always have the things we want in life. Accept your limitations, work hard and you might learn enough mathematics to squeak through the basic course next year.”
Mother, close to tears: “We had no idea Johnny’s progress was so poor. Perhaps it’s better that he does drop down to the lower class.”
Johnny, upset: “But Mum, I promise to try even harder from now on. I’ll do anything to improve. I’ll ask the teacher for more help in class.”
Teacher: “Johnny, you know there are 25 students in the class. Do you think I can make time for you each lesson to bring you up to scratch? It just won’t be fair on the others, who are obviously better than you and can benefit from the subject. They deserve the extra time. You don’t.”
Father, resignedly: “Will dropping down to the remedial class affect his career choices?”
Teacher: “Probably. If he can’t be a carpenter, then what is wrong with becoming a carpenter’s assistant? It’s hard manual labour and a lot less pay, but there’s nothing wrong with good, honest work. See the guidance counsellor on your way out.”
Father, mother and Johnny walk off dejectedly.
A parent-teacher interview is the last course of action in a sequence of steps that you, as a parent, performs. Prior to the interview, through an ongoing process of communication and support, you would have established an accurate appraisal of your child’s ability and a support structure that complements what the teacher has to offer.
Outlined below are appropriate discourses a parent can initiate to glean maximum information concerning the progress of their child.
1. Praise the Teacher
Beware, teachers are astute creatures who can sense undue flattery from a kilometre away.
So, don’t kowtow, do not bow, avoid a reverential kiss on their writing hand, and definitely do not extol their gift of teaching. Begin by remarking on how Johnny comes home excitedly to relate how much he’s learnt in class, that the lesson was interesting and how knowledgeable his teacher is.
This establishes two important points, that Johnny likes the subject and that he admires his teacher. Hopefully, the plaudits will elicit an appreciative tit for tat response from the teacher, who will then point out that Johnny always tries hard, that he is motivated and is a popular member of the class.
It is also advantageous for you to mention, in passing, that other teachers have commented that Johnny has the best teacher for the subject. At this stage it is irrelevant that this remark may be manufactured or that it may or may not be true. Since it refers to the teacher’s colleagues, it passes the test for sincerity without compromising your credentials as an observant parent.
2. Your Child May Not Be an Angel
Contradicting a teacher based on your bias as a parent is anathema. It directly impugns their professional status and makes them feel like second rate citizens. Remember that it is the teacher who sees your child every day, observing, recording, assessing and watching them interact with others. When they make a global judgement such as “Your child picks on other students”, you can be sure of its validity.
Conceded, it’s difficult for a parent to admit that little Johnny might not be telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth when confronted with his report card. After the teacher at the interview informs you that Johnny distracts other students, do not whitewash the situation by gearing into immediate defence mode and declaring, “My son is always quiet and keeps to himself. At home, all he does is stay in his room and watch TV.”
A knee-jerk reaction to protect your child overlooks the fact that there is a ‘home’ Johnny and a ‘school’ Johnny.
The ‘home’ Johnny is the one you know. Obedient, courteous, does his chores and kisses his grandmother goodnight. The ‘school’ Johnny may be a boisterous lad, moulded by his peers and influenced by school dynamics and the pressures of study.
Accepting that your child is capable of dabbling in devilry should make you ask of the teacher, “What can we do to improve Johnny’s behaviour?”
Your confirmation of the teacher’s assessment immediately opens doors. The teacher will gladly provide recommendations and support mechanisms designed to enhance Johnny’s prospects of improvement academically and socially.
3. Accept Constructive Criticism
You may not be a perfect specimen of the parent set, but then, no-one is. We all have our foibles and challenges that impact on our child-raising, but they should not be used as shields to repel valid criticism that can be helpful in ameliorating the stresses involved.
At the interview, the teacher may politely suggest that you could be a better role model for your son by taking more interest in his work. He adds that for this to be realised, you must be willing to liaise with his teachers to provide support at school and at home.
In particular, do not be dismissive of a teacher request to regularly set aside time to monitor Johnny doing his homework. He may feel that this is another way to strengthen your relationship with him and to improve his grades.
Parents, like students, can be disorganised.
- How many times has Johnny asked you to buy him a calculator for an important mathematics test, but you never found the time to go to the store?
- How many times have you signed Johnny’s work diary as proof that he completed his homework, even when you didn’t check it? Why? Because you were always hurrying to get dinner ready.
- Do you carefully and fully read Johnny’s in-depth teacher reports, or do you merely look at his overall grades? You rationalise that written comments merely reflect the grades, so there is no need to read them.
By appreciating teacher recommendations regarding the important role parents can play in their child’s education, you will earn greater respect and learn at the same time.
4. Keep in Touch With Teachers
The parent-teacher interview is not a one-off occasion. It is not like anticipating a visit to the dentist full of dread, then being told that you have no cavities but that you should floss regularly to avoid gum disease. After you leave the dentist relieved, flossing is forgotten until close to the time for your next visit, when you start flossing like there is no tomorrow.
In one way, the teacher is the de facto parent, wielding significant influence on Johnny. It therefore makes sense to have open and honest dialogue with them so that Johnny, even if he feels inclined to, cannot escape the collaborative efforts of parent and teacher. In other words, there is nowhere for him to hide. He cops it, in a nice way, both at school and at home!
The form of communication is open-ended. Obviously, email is a popular method, but telephone and if need be, a face-to-face meeting can be advantageous.
However, take care not to be labelled as being overzealous, or worse, a stalker who expects immediate feedback at the drop of a hat. Be considerate in this respect, and remember that the teacher has at least twenty other parents to contend with.
5. Know the Teacher
I am both a teacher and a parent, and I freely admit that I have crossed swords with parents at parent-teacher interviews. However, my pride did not stop me from holding out the olive branch and establishing rapport and long-lasting relationships. And where was the proverbial olive branch each time? Invariably, reconciliation occurred at school social functions such as BBQs, school clean-up days, and “get to know you” evenings.
Some schools allow parents to informally assist in the classroom by listening to students read, write or perform in drama productions. This is a great way to bridge the gap between home and school and to appreciate the duties carried out by the teacher.
Another way is to volunteer for duties such as in the school canteen or for supervision at excursions, camps and other activities. This will enable you to closely interact with the teacher in settings outside the classroom.
If you feel the urge to be involved in administration, consider at election time to stand for positions to be on the School Board or on some official committee responsible for school governance. This will expose you to the school leadership team, it will grant you a certain status and will attract deserved deference and promote collegiate dialogue between you and Johnny’s teachers.
The more you know about your child’s teacher, the better will be your understanding of their specific role and how they go about it. I am not suggesting you hire a private detective to find out information about them. It means you acknowledge teachers as sentient beings who have family, a mortgage, a nagging wife, and laden with the important responsibility of taking out the garbage every week!
Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on January 17, 2018:
This is an excellent article and I enjoyed reading it. While teaching English in Bangkok, I also participated in parent-teacher meetings at my school. Unfortunately, only the parents of the best students usually attended.
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on January 06, 2018:
I really enjoy how you write. Humorous and informative! Teachers are like nurses in a way. Which makes parents the doctors. Doctors rarely read what nurses write, and it is probably close to parents reading what teachers write. Although it would inform them greatly, they don't have time.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on January 05, 2018:
Getting involved in the school often makes parents more understanding of the load and pressure on teachers. I had been a teacher and a principal fo some time and it was only in the end when a parent Consultant taught us how to communicate that we started looking forward to parent interviews. Communication is a skill and often it helps.